George Orwell’s Politics and the English language

George Orwell, 1933 (Presumed Public Domain, from Wikipedia)

I was reminded of George Orwell’s rules for writing this weekend while reading an article about the German architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983). In her article, “New guides to Bath: Society and scene in Northanger Abbey, Judy Stove-Wilson wrote that

Pevsner noted the strong tendency of English towards monosyllables. He regarded this as symptomatic of ‘understatement, the aversion against fuss, the distrust of rhetoric’ (Pevsner, The Englishness of English art, 1956, p. 13).

The reason I was reading this article, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, is because my local Jane Austen group is currently discussing Northanger Abbey. Pevsner wrote in 1968 an oft-quoted article on Austen, “The architectural setting of Jane Austen’s novels”. He, keenly interested in architecture, was critical of Austen’s minimal descriptions of buildings in her novels, though he was impressed with her knowledge of and use of Bath in her novels – and of course much of Northanger Abbey is set in Bath.

But, I’m digressing. My inspiration for this post is his comment on “the strong tendency of English towards monosyllables”. It made me chuckle given the German language’s predilection for multisyllabic words. It also reminded me of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English language” and his 6 rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

No. 2, of course, is the one I was remembering.

However, on returning to the essay to check Orwell’s actual rules, I realised that the whole essay is worth reading again, because in our world of “alternative facts” Orwell’s words on the relationship between politics and language are as relevant today as when he wrote them 70 years ago. He writes that, paradoxically, our language

becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

This is reversible, he believes, and reversing it is critical because good writing enables clear thinking, and the ability “to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration”. I should clarify, if you don’t already know, that his target is factual, and particularly “political writing”, not “the literary use of language” by which, presumably, he means creative or fictional writing.

Later in the essay he makes very clear why he is writing it, and you’ll quickly see why I’m sharing it now:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called “pacification”. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called “transfer of population” or “rectification of frontiers”. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called “elimination of unreliable elements”.

Hmm … I bet everyone reading this can think of their own contemporary examples. Please share them if you like!

I won’t write more on the essay, as my main aim was simply to share its continuing relevance. I’ll just leave you with a sentence from his last paragraph:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

That George Orwell. He really was something.

George Orwell
“Politics and the English language” 1946

29 thoughts on “George Orwell’s Politics and the English language

  1. Sue, the references to Orwell are frighteningly apt. As it happens, I was talking with a writer friend just yesterday about how reluctant we all seem to be these days to take a moral, or even politically decisive position on anything complicated. We seem to opt, if not for “the defence of the indefensible”, then the defence of the relatively easily defensible, rather than tackle the difficult political issues of the day…

    On a more lighthearted note, I suggested today to my Miss Eleven that we travel one day to Bath, just so we can experience together the setting of the Jane Austen novels (and film versions) we’ve grown to love. Here’s hoping.

    • Thanks Angela. Love this! Somewhat related – I think – is a question that I’ve been mulling around for sometime, which is to do with cultural relativism. At what point are things right or wrong and what can we excuse or accept on the basis of cultural difference. But also, I’ve been thinking too in the last couple of days about the hard questions and wanting to get good thinking going, re our current crises. There’s too much politics and too much alignment with “sides” that get in the way of real analysis, isn’t there.

      And I do hope you get to Bath with your daughter. I think it’s very different now from when I was there in the early 80s before the Austen craze really took off. There’s probably good and bad in that!

      • The best way to avoid the tourist-busy craziness is to remain in Bath or just up the hill beyond the Kennet & Avon Canal – overnight. Wander Bath in the evening or early morning – might I suggest June – long twilights/early early-morning-light – after all the day-trippers/coaches have gone/before they arrive. Take a walk a couple of kms (if that) along the canal to Bathampton – dine – or imbibe and dine – at the pub opposite the Church (St Nicholas) with its Australian Chapel – its the site of the final resting place for foundation governor Arthur Phillip.

        • Thanks Jim. It wasn’t like that when I was there last so that’s good advice, particularly just knowing that much of the busy-ness comes from daytrippers.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful digression. It is certainly apt in this age of “alternative facts”. I was thinking that a corollary to the #1 rule about metaphors would be to never compare atrocities to the holocaust.

  3. I love Orwell’s essays – and how apt they still are despite the passage of time. The example that came immediately to my mind as I’m sure it will to many others, is ‘fake news’. What the Trump gang really mean is anything that the media prints which is critical of Trump and his policies or doesnt accord with his view of the world. i’m afraid we in the UK are going to hear a lot more of this phrase as our politicians here are now in election campaign mode.

    • He’s great isn’t he, Karen. And thanks for sharing your current term. “Alternative facts” and “Fake news” derail the conversation so effectively from the real point to arguments about the terms and their truth.

  4. We’ve always had fake news in the UK, especially during election campaigns, I prefer to just call them lies.
    Orwell’s essays make great but at times depressing reading, as nothing ever seems to improved.

    • No, that’s true Katrina. Little changes. We really need journalists and political commentators to force discussion to the real issues. But for complex reasons, they don’t, or not in the major go rims anyhow.

  5. I have a dear friend who reads the newspaper headlines and accepts them as facts! “It was in the paper”. I dislike the military and political term ‘collateral damage’. The world needs more writers like Orwell.

    • Haha Meg. My first draft of this post had “collateral damage” and then I changed it to “Alternative facts”. I agree, it’s a terrible phrase. Orwell would have a field day right now, wouldn’t he.

      As for your friend. There are too many people who can’t separate out spin or opinion or half-truths (hmm, half-truths sounds ridiculous!) from fact. It’s a sometimes hard to do but we need to start from a basis of scepticism I think.

  6. What a timely post, and the quotes from Orwell spot on. What an man! Unhappily they fit our times like a glove. Oops – already broke Rule 1…

  7. I’m a big Orwell fan and love his ‘sparse’ writing as well as his ability to see his way through/beyond propaganda. I thought this lying/twisting of facts started with the Vietnam War, but that was just me growing up, alternative facts have been with us always.

    • I really love Orwell’s essays and my Everyman selected is one of my favourite of all books. The age of Stalin and Hitler probably generated as much alternative truth as our age but with much less sophisticated technology. In his essays in review after review and essay after essay Orwell penetrates the reasons and techniques of political deception and self deception

    • I guess, Bill, that we all think of our own era. It’s depressing really isn’t it?

      I love his advice about cutting out words, as well as using shorter ones. I often go through my posts again and again, paring away words.

  8. My parents were academics, and when I would recite a “fact” without attribution they would ask me “where did you read that?” If I couldn’t remember, they would declare “It could have been The Book of Lies.”

  9. Orwell, he is a gem and knew what was what! How about “enhanced interrogation” to add to the list?

    If I recall correctly, E.B. White also goes in for the short words over the long words. I had a teacher tell me once it was a preference for the Anglo-Saxon over the latinate, that latinate words are often used when a person wants to write “fancy” and sound smart and pull the wool over your eyes. There is some validity to that argument, I have to admit.

    • Oh yes, Stefanie, that’s a good one for the list.

      And yes, I think the “rule” re shorter words is bound up with not using latinate words. That’s how it has often been described to me. As they say, eschew obfuscation! Like you, I think they have a point!

  10. Pingback: Guest post (linguistics, George Orwell) | The Business of Writing

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